Wealth in the Viking world came in many forms, from pillaging to trading. It is common knowledge that the people from the North were accomplished traders and explorers, but their economic system was far from simple.
The Viking Age economy can be quite complicated and yet surprisingly familiar. Trading was obviously an important factor in the Norse economy, but is important to keep in mind that, like the rest of the world at the time, most of the economy was centered around agrarian activities, with the possession of land being the most recognizable symbol of wealth.
Land could be inherited, bestowed or even stolen, but it was almost impossible to buy or sell outside the family. According to the Hälsinge Law, land and farms were possessions belonging to a family and had ancestral ‘links’. Land was an óðal, meaning ‘ancestral property, patrimony, inheritance (in land)’. In order to sell óðal land, first it had to be publicly offered to the seller's relatives. If none of the relatives wanted to purchase the land and did not gave permission to sell, than the seller could only rent the land for up to three years. After this period the seller must offer the land to his nearest kinfolk for a second time in the presence of witnesses. If they still do not want to buy it or to give him consent to sell, then he is free to sell it.
This means that Vikings generally have a lot of respect for big land-owners, who in several cases were women. This gender equality was extremely important, as the influence of the land-owners was strongly felt in the village councils (Things), which helped shape the daily life of all around them.
The importance of the farm did not make commerce less common or important, but rather signifies that most of goods being traded were related to agrarian activities. Even the iconic Axe, due to its versatility, could be considered both a tool to be used in the farm, and a weapon to be used in raids.
The primary measure of wealth to the average Viking Age Scandinavian was the amount of cattle he owned. Cattle, and cattle products (like cheese, milk, butter, meat, hides) could be sold, and could also be exchanged against all the other necessities of life, as well as luxury products like jewelry or wine. Normally, all craft activity also took place on an extended farmstead, which meant that a Viking farmer could be largely economically autonomous.
In 800 AD, a well-off farmstead in Norway would have been primarily pastoral, based on the raising of cattle, pigs, and goats. The combination worked well in the homelands, and for a time in southern Iceland and the Faroe Islands. In Greenland, pigs and then cattle were soon outnumbered by goats as conditions changed and the weather became harsher.
By the 12th-13th centuries AD, cod fishing, falconry, sea mammal oil, soapstone, and walrus ivory had become intense commercial efforts, driven by the need to pay taxes to kings and tithes to the church, being traded throughout northern Europe.
The centralization of the government in the Scandinavian countries increased the development of trading places and towns, allowing for the tools and supplies being sold to become exchangeable by currency, a portable wealth that could be easily used to pay for armies, art and architecture.
Towards the Medieval period, there is an increasing specialization along the North Atlantic coast in preserved fish production for trade with Europe, inland Sweden had iron mines, Southern Norway exported soapstone products, and Northern Scandinavia expensive furs. Greenland's Norse in particular traded heavily on its walrus ivory resources, with several examples found in archeological sites.
Walrus ivory chess piece depicting a Berserker bitting his shield
Viking trade was mostly conducted through silver, which was exchanged by weight. By far most of this silver came from the east, particularly the rich Abbasid silver mines of Central Asia. Before the Viking period, smaller silver coins were also used, but these were mainly from Western Europe. Since coins of the period had the tendency of varying significantly on size and weight, what mattered to Vikings was not the number of them, but purely their weight in silver.
Archeologists found several treasure caches such as the Spillings Hoard, found at the Spilling farm on northern Gotland, Sweden, with a great deal of silver bars or silver jewelry with little bits cut off to be used to purchase goods based on their weight. As the value of precious metals grew, they became associated with wealth and the more affluent Vikings began to wear silver jewelry. Gold and precious stones were also obviously highly valued, but they were much rarer than silver, and as such are less frequently found in archeological sites.
It would be impossible not to mention the importance of the raids during the Viking period. The infamous Viking raids brought significant wealth to the North, with a significant part of the loot of such incursions being slaves (read more here).
Known mints in Scandinavia sprung up towards the end of the 10th century. The Danes in Britain had enforced what was known as the Danegeld. Initially it was raised as tribute to the Viking invaders to effectively pay them off and stop them attacking. Once the Danelaw was established it was kept on as a land-tax.
The first coins issued by Sweyn Forkbeard in Denmark were identical to the coins first "acquired" in England, even down to the image and name of the English king. This was likely down to the Danes simply taking the dies from Britain back to Denmark and using them.
Swein Forkbeard coin
The same was also true of Norway and Sweden, whose early coins were either heavily inspired by, or exact copies of English coins. The first coins issued by Olaf Tryggvason were an exact copy of coins issued by Æthelred II in England.
Shortly after, the coins started to bear the image of Sweyn and the inscription ‘ZVEN REX AD DENER’ and ‘GOD-WINE M-AN D-NER’ for Sven, King of the Danes and Godwine Moneyer of the Danes respectively.
Harald Hardrada coin
What do you think about the Viking Age economics? Leave your comments below!
Brink, Stefan, 2014, ‘The Hälsinge Law between South and West, King and Church, and Local Customs’, in New Approaches to Early Law in Scandinavia, S. Brink and L. Collinson eds. (Acta Scandinavia 3), Turnhout: Brepols, pp. 37–56.
Perdikaris, Sophia and Thomas H. McGovern 2006 Cod Fish, Walrus, and Chieftains: Economic intensification in the Norse North Atlantic. Pp. 193-216 in Seeking a Richer Harvest: The Archaeology of Subsistence Intensification, Innovation, and Change, Tina L. Thurston and Christopher T. Fisher, editors. Studies in Human Ecology and Adaptation, volume 3. Springer US: New York.
Thurborg, Marit 1988 Regional Economic Structures: An Analysis of the Viking Age Silver Hoards from Oland, Sweden. World Archaeology 20(2):302-324.